Association of Concerned Africa Scholars Review (previously: Bulletin)
ACAS Bulletin 85: US militarization of the Sahara-Sahel: Security, Space & Imperialism

All quiet on the West Africa front: terrorism, tourism and poverty in Mauritania

June 2010

In a recent article, Washington columnist David Ignatius (2009) smugly concludes that ‘we have an enemy that makes even more mistakes than we do’, and because of that, al-Qaida’s extremist ideology has been and will continue to be a failure. I wonder if the three Spaniards, two Italians and one Frenchman currently held hostage by those claiming to belong to al-Qaida au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI) in the Malian Sahara would agree.

It is unlikely that you will have heard of these kidnappings in West Africa, three separate incidents occurring over six weeks in November and December. While the French researcher was taken from his Mali hotel the night of Nov. 26, the others were ambushed on roadways in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. The Spaniard was kidnapped 160 kilometres north of the nation’s capital, Nouakchott, on 29 November, and the Italian in the far southeast near the Malian border on 18 December.

On 29 November, I was doing field research in that southeastern region, less than a kilometre from the Malian border. Despite the fact that Nouakchott and the location of the attack were at least 1,300 km away, local officials were very nervous about our presence, and harassed us about our travelling. Ten days later, these concerns for our safety appeared justified. So too did the rumours we’d heard about al-Qaida activity along the porous Malian-Mauritanian borders.

At the time, I responded to someone who asked if my family and friends back home would be worried when they heard the news: ‘No, because they won’t; there won’t be any news’. There was an odd sort of comfort in that assertion at the time. But as I reflect upon it in light of subsequent events, including the recent Nigerian attempt to blow up an American airliner, I realize there is a problem in our not knowing.

It comes back to Ignatius’s conclusion about al-Qaida’s ‘failure’.

For him and many others, the ‘Middle East’ is Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, extending recently to Pakistan and now Yemen. The issues are 9/11, wars (or potential wars) in and/or with the above, and the fate of the United States. Mauritania? Mali? Not on the radar. The AQMI? Ditto. Spain? Italy? Good vacation destinations. Even France is seldom accorded attention these days. But the kidnappers holding the European hostages belonging to these ‘non-important nations’ see things differently. They justify their actions in terms of the support these countries provided in Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, they are only negotiating for the Spaniards, demanding $7 million US and the release of some al-Qaida prisoners. Mali has been tasked with facilitating the negotiations, but they have not gone well. Although all governments publicly espouse the opinion that the West cannot give in to terrorist blackmail, rumours abound that ransom payments have been negotiated in other Saharan situations. Kidnapping is widely seen as profitable.

And not only for al-Qaida. How do kidnappers and hostages travel hundreds of kilometres through desert and the Sahel region of Africa, chased by local military and surveyed by expensive western equipment (installed as part of the U.S.’s war on terror) with impunity? True, they seem to have tapped into the well-entrenched trans-Saharan contraband and drug-trafficking network, but they have done so thanks to handsome cash payments made to local people desperate to escape poverty. Dollars are dollars, whether they facilitate the transport of cigarettes, hashish — or hostages.

However, there is one important difference in Mauritania: trucks transporting tax-free tobacco had no effect on what was becoming the country’s most important industry — tourism; seemingly random kidnappings of westerners has. And that’s not all. In the summer, an American NGO worker was assassinated in Nouakchott’s central market and only weeks later, a suicide bomber attacked the French embassy not far away. International travel advisories flagged Mauritania as high-risk, ‘essential travel only’.

The impact on tourism was immediate. Air routes were cancelled or itineraries altered to piggyback on other countries’ priorities. Cash-cow charters to ‘ancient desert cities’ are as dry as the wadis they overlook; flights now leave and arrive at 2 and 3 a.m., underscoring Mauritania’s new marginalized position for all potential visitors, including businessmen. What kind of investment, especially much-needed development investment, is attracted to a high-risk, terrorist-active, ‘Islamic’ republic accessible to the world only in the wee hours of the morning?

Most ordinary Mauritanians have no idea why they are being ‘targeted’ by Islamists who blow themselves up and kidnap, and by the West, which isolates and impoverishes them. They recently embarked upon democratization after having lived under military and dictatorial rule for most of their almost half-century of independence (Mauritania was carved from the former French West Africa in 1960). The current president, Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, elected in July 2009, was involved in the last two coups d’etat, including that of the first elected president in 2008. He fought his campaign as ‘the president for the poor’ who could bring security to the country. An assassination, a suicide bombing, two kidnapping incidents and an economy that barely deserves the name — this fledgling democracy is in trouble. If a retired general with the support of the military whose priority is to care for the poor can’t protect people or property, then perhaps it is the democratic system that is at fault.

It is not necessarily al-Qaida ideology that is succeeding or failing but al-Qaida dollars (reflected in schools and health clinics) and al-Qaida strength in the face of weakening governments that is attracting the support. Mistakes they may be making — but when we see how Mauritania and others are experiencing al-Qaida’s tactics and their consequences, we would be rash to assume that we are looking at ‘failure’ in the near future.


David Ignatius, ‘In 2010, a world of turmoil’, Washington Post (30 December 2009):

About the Author

Ann E. McDougall is a professor of history and classics at the University of Alberta, and general editor of the Canadian Journal of African Studies.


This article originally appeared as ‘Al-Qaida’s quiet war in West Africa: Extremist ideology ruining tourism, hurting the poor in fledgling democracy Mauritania’, in the The Edmonton Journal (11 January 2010),

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